Passing Over by Norman Finkelstein
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, N.Y., 2007)
Powers: TrackVolume 3 by Norman Finkelstein(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2005)
Columns: TrackVolume 2 by Norman Finkelstein(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2002)
Track by Norman Finkelstein
(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 1999)
Restless Messengers by Norman Finkelstein(University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1992)
The Presence and Absence of the Text: Norman Finkelstein’s Recent and Early Poetry
Passing Over by Norman Finkelstein fills in not only a period of time in the author’s life between the publication of Restless Messengers and the more recent Track, but also the evolution of his thinking, his vision, especially having to do with the power of written text to transform human self-identity; inscription is also a key to Finkelstein’s identity as a Jew, a member of the people of the book. Yet, more fundamentally, writing ushers absence into the human existential equation, as Walter J. Ong and many others have shown (which helps to account for the Judaic wrestling with the deity, or potentially the cry of abandonment when God seems to have withdrawn); writing represents someone whose utterance is carried on after that person is gone. There are great implications here as regards one’s conception of time but also the ontology of physicality, of space. Finkelstein’s poem “Yes and No” begins,
He is afraid to be in the presence.
He is afraid to be in the presence of absence.
He is afraid, but his fear
breaks the backs of the sentences,
the journeys to Hell
It is this dynamic that forms the basis for Finkelstein’s self-explanation as a human being and as a Jew.
Finkelstein’s moving meditation on Judaism and his life as a Jew living in America, which constitutes the greatest part of Passing Over, serves as a key counterpoint to Track—made up of three book-length poems in a sequence, which at its deepest level involves itself in considering, again, the phenomenon of the literate human being and the possibility for spiritual sustenance. Track incorporates Judaic scriptural motifs among allusions to and quotes from other textual religious and literary traditions. Written prior to Track, but only now being published, Passing Over establishes an intellectual grounding for the later work and fleshes out the importance of Judaism for Finkelstein the poet. It provides possibilities for reading Track, which are not on the surface of the poem. Restless Messengers also lyrically explored Jewish identity and life. Yet in the later Passing Over, one written by a mature poet, there is a calm moral clarity. Consider his poem “Allegory of the Song “ that begins with an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s thwarted escape from the Nazis, leading to his suicide, and contains echoes of Kafka:
At the disputed border the song is turned back.
Denied a visa, without proper ID,
the stateless one, begging and bluffin,
is last seen with what little it owns,
slumped on a bench outside a station
in an unidentified jurisdiction.
The stationmaster, the borderguard,
the clerk at district headquarters,
claim that they dealt with no such figure
on that particular date.
The song is at once inscribed, alive and intoned, and ephemeral. Annihilation should not disturb anyone’s comfort except that the song perishes, and this death cannot ever be fully comprehended. The last stanza begins,
Think nothing of it: I was fighting off sleep
when I came upon the scene.
I never heard what became of it,
but it is allegory because it must be allegory,
and the losses were tallied long ago.
Let’s climb up into the hills, away from the square
where the drivers beside their trucks blow on their hands
against an early frost.
In Passing Over Norman Finkelstein captures the dilemma of history and fading memory, and how, given these conditions, one might live genuinely.
Burt Kimmelman has published five collections of poetry -- Musaics (1992), First Life (2000), The Pond at Cape May Point (2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, Somehow (2005), and There Are Words (2007). For over a decade, he was Senior Editor of Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters (1998); and, The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (1996, paperback 1999). He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry (2005).